You’ve just finished an Arduino project you have been working on for months. You’ve tested it and worked out all the bugs. Now it’s time to deploy it in your home or office—as soon as you find an enclosure for it.
There are quite a few off-the-shelf options, but they seem to be either too big or too little (think Goldilocks and the three bears). None of them have openings precisely where you need them for your sensors, actuators, and USB ports. Your mind goes to the 3D printer at the local makerspace that you’ve been using off and on for projects. Why not 3D print your own enclosure?
Key Pros and Cons of 3D Printing Electronic Enclosures
3D printing is a choice that more and more DIY electronics enthusiasts are turning to, as well as individuals and companies who are prototyping their electronic designs. And there are reasons for this beyond just having access to a 3D printer.
Here are the major benefits to 3D printing an electronic enclosure as opposed to trying to find an off-the-shelf enclosure:
- Customization of both dimensions and appearance
- Openings for sensors and cables that are precisely located and of the correct size
- Economically viable for prototypes, “one-off” projects, and very short production runs
- Works well for smaller enclosures
As with anything, there are drawbacks, too.
- Depending on the type of printer technology, the printing process could take a long time
- The finish on the final product is highly dependent on the type of printing process used
- Smoother surface finishes typically require more time
- Will not work as well for larger enclosures
Having a project 3D printed by a company that specializes in it will likely result in a better enclosure with a smoother surface finish, but any design mistakes on your end will be much more costly.
Other Alternatives for Custom Electronic Enclosures
There are, of course, other alternatives for custom electronic enclosures. Sheet metal enclosures remain a popular choice. Designing a sheet metal enclosure may not be too difficult, as long as you take into account issues such as bend radius and the correct placement of openings. It does, however, take someone with good tooling and skill to make one that is as attractive as it is functional—unless you have it custom made for your project by someone skilled in working with sheet metal.
For hobbyists, another option would be laser cut wood or acrylic enclosures. This requires some skill to correctly lay out the final enclosure in 2D, but the result is every bit as customizable and accurate as 3D printing.
Injection moulding is the go-to method for enclosures made from polymer when a very high production volume is expected. Customization is much more difficult because of the time and expense involved in making the dies required for injection moulding. This is not typically an option for a DIY electronics enthusiast, nor is it a common choice for prototypes.
Milling can take a solid block of metal or polymer and cut away the unnecessary material until only the final design is left. This is another option for making electronic enclosures, but it is not typically recommended because of constraints with regard to wall thickness. However, this remains a valid option for a DIY enthusiast if they have access to a CNC milling machine and the skills or software needed to generate the M&G code needed.
Impact of 3D Printers on Enclosures
So, have 3D printers had a positive or negative impact on enclosures for electronics? Overall, it seems that the impact has been positive. It has allowed DIY electronics projects the opportunity to look as professional on the outside as they are on the inside. It encourages creativity and innovation that goes beyond how the design functions and extends to how it looks, too.
3D printing makes it easier for people to take their designs, make them a reality, and then present them in a professional manner to potential investors. This can be a major benefit for entrepreneurs because, even with limited funds, they have an opportunity to create an impressive enclosure for their design.
As more and more communities are investing in local makerspaces, 3D printers are becoming more accessible to the public. That means hobbyists and young people with an interest in engineering can make their designs come to life with a customized enclosure.
For those who don’t know how to design an enclosure, there is a wide variety of online resources that can provide designs and information about the process, including details like when to use a living hinge, what type of fasteners work best, where to use ribs for support, and how to design vents for proper cooling. If anything, the advent of 3D printing has allowed non-engineers to design better electronics enclosures for their personal projects and inventions.
As 3D printing continues to become more accessible and more affordable, it will find even more uses. The creation of customised electronics enclosures is just one of its many applications. It has allowed the concept of enclosure prototyping and customization to extend beyond companies with huge budgets to spend on new designs. Now anyone—from the hobbyist who works with electronics in their spare time to the entrepreneurs who need a prototype that looks as good as it runs—can develop the ideal enclosure for their electronic design.